by Pratik Joshi
America, get ready for plug-in hybrid electric vehicles that will reduce the country's dependence on foreign oil and reduce carbon emissions.
Researchers, businesses, utilities and public agencies in the Mid-Columbia and nationwide are working to help smooth the transition to dual-hybrid vehicles.
Mass adoption of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles will change how we live, said Ron Johnston-Rodriguez. He's helping coordinate a statewide project to assess special lithium battery packs that have been installed on 14 Toyota Prius hybrids owned by, among others, Benton PUD, Energy Northwest, Walla Walla Community College, Port of Chelan County and the University of Washington.
The yearlong project, sponsored by the Washington Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development and the Port of Chelan County, will collect crucial data related to battery charging, mileage and emissions in different weather and road conditions.
The study by Idaho National Laboratory will provide information to policy makers on questions such as if there are enough charging stations and how much time people would typically need to charge their vehicles. It'll also emphasize the value of a smart power grid with two-way communications between a consumer and provider to better manage consumption.
Data about the effects of geography on battery performance also may be relevant for battery manufacturers, Johnston-Rodriguez said.
The project is one of many steps in anticipation of growing popularity of plug-in hybrids. Learning more about the technology also can reveal potential economic development opportunities, said Johnston-Rodriguez, who's also director of economic development for the Port of Chelan County.
As more plug-in hybrids or electric vehicles come on the road, data from the project is expected to help planners and auto manufacturers. Already, President-Elect Barack Obama has talked about his vision of a million plug-in hybrid electric vehicles on the road by 2015.
Walla Walla Community College got involved with the project to support sustainability efforts and enhance training opportunities for students in its automotive mechanics program, said Jim Haun, lead instructor.
"We're training students for the future," he said, adding that hybrids are more technically challenging than average cars to work on.
Silvano Gonzalez, 20, one of Haun's students, is excited to be working on the hybrids. Installation of the battery pack and the data logging system don't interfere with the Prius' operation, said Gonzalez, who participated in a training session at Wenatchee Valley College last month.
While gas prices have dropped, he expects them to go back up eventually and make hybrids even more popular. That also will mean changes for drivers, he said.
"You can't go crazy with a plug-in hybrid" because speeding drains the battery quickly, Gonzalez said. Driving under 35 mph can optimize savings, he said.
A number of auto manufacturers have announced plans to launch hybrids or electric vehicles in the next few years, said Michael Kintner-Meyer, a staff scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland.
Plug-ins potentially could displace 52 percent of net oil imports, and the idle capacity of the U.S. power grid could supply 158 million electric vehicles if they are charged during off-peak hours, he said.
Kintner-Meyer is involved in a separate project with the University of Michigan to study the economic and technical challenges plug-in hybrid vehicles pose for the power grid.
In the long term, plug-ins will change the business model public utilities use to supply power, Kintner-Meyer said. They may move toward what's called "critical peak pricing," or charging a higher rate when the grid is experiencing a higher load, he said.
At PNNL, Kintner-Meyer is working to develop a "smart charging controller" that could help consumers automatically recharge plug-in hybrids during "off" critical hours. That way consumers would not have to remember when to plug in their vehicles.
Benton PUD also is interested in learning more about the impact of plug-in vehicles on the power grid, said Gary Splattstoesser, superintendent of support services.
Benton PUD, like other participants in the project, spent $10,000 for a battery kit on one of its hybrid vehicles and asked one of its employees, Pat Sullivan, to drive the vehicle, he said. "We wanted to have a good idea of what a hybrid would do in a rural setting," he said.
Sullivan, who's based in Prosser, has seen a 25 percent increase in mileage to more than 50 mpg and once managed to get 74 mpg, Splattstoesser said.
The PUD's participation in the project is about helping reduce carbon footprint and promote more efficient use of resources, said Benton PUD spokeswoman Karen Miller.
The PUD also is installing advanced metering infrastructure that will allow staff to monitor consumption without going to a consumer's home, she said. That will help pave the way eventually for a smart power grid.
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